Why this Texas teacher stayed amid an education vacancy crisis

This story accompanies KXAN’s investigative project on Texas teacher resignations called “The Exit: Teachers Leave. Students Suffer.

WATCH: Austin teacher Nikki Sorto almost retired last school year, but an ‘epiphany’ changed that.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Biology teacher Nikki Sorto has been a teacher at McCallum High School for as long as she has been married to her husband of 29 years. Her now-adult children went to the school.  

As a veteran teacher, she still gets excited when talking about her students.  

But, as she puts it, if you asked her last school year — she would have told you she was retiring.

“I was exhausted. I was heartbroken and I felt society and the powers that be were pushing us even harder, in a time we were trying to regroup and collect and draw in the kids and build a community back,” Sorto said.

A record 70% of teachers surveyed by the Texas State Teachers Association said they were seriously considering leaving the profession as they ended the school year last spring, according to a survey of 668 Texas educators. A separate 2021 Ed Week Research Center survey found when teachers were asked the biggest factor keeping them in education, teachers were most likely to point to “love for students.”

Sorto told KXAN her thought process going into this year and why she ultimately decided to stick around.

Kelly Wiley: You said you felt exhausted, and you said there was a push to make ground. Tell me what that year looked like.

Nikki Sorto: In response to TEA, and the state and everything, we had to keep in mind that the kids had to pass.

We, being [Austin Independent School District] had many tests along the way to make sure the teachers are teaching, and the students are learning the content. It is a good idea. I am not sure, the way it was pushed in was kind of quick – and I think it was in response to [House Bill] 4545.

It became stressful trying to play catch up here, what was perceived as catch up rather than just building and moving towards. So, they ramped up in response. ‘You have to teach this faster, and you have to cut some things out.’ I feel it was a response to ‘we are trying out very best, we are working really hard, but we just got spread too thin.’

Kelly: A lot of the teachers that I spoke to during all of this — I would ask how people react to you leaving and they would get really emotional. […] When a teacher left mid-year what did that look like?

Nikki: That was super rough. The kids are upset and hurt and trying to be grown up about it and be like ‘yeah, yeah – go do B and C’ and — and then ‘you left us in the lurch.’ So, a teacher would have to be really desperate to do that, I feel.

There is definitely a gap in learning. How can there not be? And then we end up with — how do we put someone in that classroom?

Kelly: We have talked to a bunch of teachers and one teacher — this last teacher, in particular, he was not a McCallum teacher. He was a middle school teacher and he said, you know, no one gets into the teaching for the money, but he said ‘When I could no longer pay my bills’ — he had to reflect. Have you come across teachers who have hit that?

Nikki: Absolutely. I know someone specifically. She is on her own. She owns a condo.

She works every extra job she can get. She does any sort of, like, supplemental thing available here at school, she drives Uber, or she did before COVID. That is a shame. Like she is working so hard, and she has to do it all on her own and she can’t make it and she finally decided she is ready to do something else.

She told me specifically she did not want to be a bitter person and she was on her way to that. She was starting to feel bitter, and she did not want to be that for the kids, and she didn’t want to be that for herself.

I think it is hard. It was hard to watch her leave, in particular, because I really respect her. She was there for the kids. She is intelligent and wonderful and so for her to have to make a choice about money — that is tough.

I do think … I hope things are changing. I think we rely on ‘teachers love teaching’ and so we — they concentrate on where they are, the kids, they will say ‘oh it will get better. they will throw some recognition my way.’

We are not going to get a lot of people who should be teaching because of the money issue, and I don’t blame them. They have to make their lives and do what is best for them, but they might be incredible teachers, but they are missing out and the kids are missing out. Society is missing out.

Kelly: Why did you stay?

For the most part, [McCallum] is just an incredible place to work. So, once I realized, honestly, I had an epiphany — I am walking out the building with my best friend, we are talking about the day and suddenly I just said ‘I am done.’ She said, ‘what do you mean you are done?’ ‘I am done concentrating on all the negative. I am moving to what we do best.’

We do best in the classroom with the kids and having a good time. I love the kids, and most teachers do. Once you begin to concentrate on that, at least for me, it got to be more fun again.

This interview is part of a project into a record number of teacher resignations, called “The Exit: Teachers Leave, Students Suffer.”

Nikki Sorto will begin her 30th year teaching at McCallum on Aug. 15. Sorto is the Science Department Chair and earned 2022 McCallum Teacher of the Year.

* This article was originally published here